Oceanside’s historic pier has been rebuilt five times since the original wooden structure was erected in 1888. (Getty Images)
It’s impossible not to go into O’verdrive in Oceanside. This sunny coastal hamlet just north of San Diego is the OG of surf towns, a true O’riginal, and they lean in hard on the whole O-apostrophe thing. It’s not Oceanside, people, it’s O’Side — and we are OK with that.
How could we not be? Oceanside boasts miles of white sand beaches, a palm tree-lined downtown and plenty of history. Its pop culture claim to fame, the blue Victorian cottage from the first “Top Gun,” is now an adorable pie shop called High Pie. And with temperatures in the mid-60s to low 70s year-round, it’s a spot to catch some sunshine even in the dead of winter. Just grab a sweater or fleece for evening jaunts or a traipse out to the end of the breezy pier.
On this particular weekend, we’ve settled in at the Fin Hotel, just a few walkable blocks from the beach. The Fin looks like a historic hotel from the outside, what with its vintage neon sign, retro murals and tiled lobby floors, but the rooms are modern. Like other properties under the Hilton Tapestry banner, the hotel’s decor is tied to local history and culture — and this 1927 building is rich in both. It has housed several hotels in its near-century of existence and spent the World War II years as a wartime communication center, a period commemorated by the hotel’s intimate Switchboard restaurant and bar.
There are other lodging options in town, of course, including two swanky new oceanfront hotels, the Mission Pacific Hotel and Seabird Resort, which opened in 2021 with amenities that range from expansive ocean views to a rooftop bar. But we’re keeping our eyes on the pie — er, prize.
This area is known for its “Top Gun” filming locations, from the Naval Training Center (San Diego’s Liberty Station) to Viper’s house (the Point Loma lighthouse) and the 1888 Victorian cottage that was home to Maverick’s love interest, Charlie, in the 1986 movie.
Today, you’ll find the little blue cottage on the grounds of the Mission Pacific Hotel, a block north of its original Oceanside location, and just a hop from the beach. There’s a replica of Tom Cruise’s Kawasaki parked out front, so if you feel the need for speed — a speedy selfie, anyway — you can snap away. And the cottage’s High Pie shop does a brisk business in sugar-dusted hand pies filled with apple, cherry or blueberry compote (three for $9) with dipping sauces that range from Charlie’s Chocolate to Government Cheese ($2 extra).
Still dusted with powdered sugar — us, that is; the little pies are long gone — we head for Oceanside’s iconic pier to walk off the sugar buzz.
This is a quintessential beach town, a place where cheery orange beach cottages from the Roaring ’20s line the strand, waves break in endless succession and the city’s iconic pier stretches into the Pacific like a lingering farewell. There’s a California Surf Museum downtown, if you’d like to trace the sport’s local history, which includes O’Side’s Phil Edwards, the world’s first professional surfer. And the pier offers a prime spot to see surfing competitions, like the Super Girl Surf Pro this fall, or just hang out and watch the everyday action unfurl in the curls.
Built in 1888, the original wooden pier stretched 1,340 feet, before winter storms took their toll. By 1891, just 300 feet of wharf remained. The pier was rebuilt in 1894 with iron pilings, but a 1902 storm destroyed that one, too. The third pier was built in 1903 in a pattern repeated over so many decades. One can only marvel at the optimism of Oceanside’s citizenry. The fourth pier was dedicated in 1927 and the fifth in 1947, with celebrations that included a parade of 48 “bathing beauties,” live music and plenty of pomp.
The current pier, which juts out 1,942 feet, opened to the public in 1987 with lamp posts that evoke their 1927 counterparts and distinctive diagonal decking designed to better weather the ocean surge. It’s tempting to go all “Titanic,” as you stand out at the end gazing out at the horizon, wind in your hair — and belly rumbling. The pier’s old Ruby’s Diner shuttered during the pandemic, and those hand pies were a long time ago.
Fortunately, Oceanside restaurateurs Jessica and Davin Waite — who also own Shoots Fish & Beer and the Wrench & Rodent Seabasstropub — opened a seafood-centric takeout spot at the end of the pier last summer. The Brine Box is inspired by Davin’s British roots and his fondness for the classic fish-and-chip shops of English seaside towns. This being a California seaside town, the menu includes beer-battered fish and chips ($17), of course, with a vegan “carrot fish” option, as well as seafood Caesar wraps, tuna burgers and Vietnamese-style shrimp po’boys.
Wrench & Rodent — a cheeky nod to some of the odder British pub naming conventions, not a reflection of the menu — has been part of Oceanside’s dining scene for the last decade. But Shoots is part of a post-pandemic surge of trendy new eateries at places such as the Tremont Collective, a warehouse conversion-meets-party-vibe complex that opened in 2021. The Collective includes nine shopping, eating and sipping spots and a shared outdoor space that provides alfresco dining and lounging areas and a venue for First Friday frolic.
The airy, flower-filled Communal, the cafe and shop that anchors a corner of the complex, offers lavender honey, vanilla bean and salted caramel lattes singly or by the flight ($8.50). Ditto for the toasts, so you don’t have to choose among the Caprese, avocado or pear ricotta options ($12 to $13.50) — you can have them all ($39). They do frittata sandwiches, custom pizzas and creative cocktails too.
Bottlecraft, the beer shop and tasting room that houses Shoots’ poke counter, is just next door and well worth a stop. Make sure you seek out Al Fresko, a caterer with a small market that offers charcuterie and cheese platters and sandwiches, including a very tasty Al Fresko Pesto Caprese ($14) to enjoy on the patio.
And if you’re looking for more hot, new warehouse-conversion spots, head to south Oceanside where the Freeman Collective opened last summer offering two buildings’ worth of eateries, including HomeState and its Tex-Mex breakfast tacos, Brooklyn-esque Corner Pizza and Blackmarket Bakery, which began serving its signature “eggywiches” in January.
For a foodie, it’s all O-utstanding.
If You Go
The Fin Hotel: Rooms start at $154 during low season. Add $25 for self-parking.133 S. Coast Highway in Oceanside; www.thefinhoteloceanside.com
High Pie: Open from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Thursday-Monday at 250 N. Pacific St. in Oceanside; www.famoushighpie.com
California Surf Museum: Admission is $5 to $7 at the museum, which is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily at 312 Pier View Way in Oceanside; https://surfmuseum.org
The Brine Box: Open for takeout from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday at the end of the Oceanside Pier; www.osidebrinebox.com
Tremont Collective: 602 S Tremont St. in Oceanside; www.tremontcollective.com
Freeman Collective: 510 Vista Way and 1940 S. Freeman St. in Oceanside; www.freeman-collective.com